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The Mega Myth of Mega Vitamins

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 23, 2013

Too much of a good thing can kill ya!

Okay, I am going to write about how we overmedicate ourselves with regards to vitamins. That said, I am NOT saying that vitamin supplements are always bad. In parts of the world where a balanced diet is unavailable, supplements make sense. There are people, myself included, who have specific medical conditions that prevent proper absorption of vitamins…again supplements make sense. So, please no straw men.

In an article published in THE ATLANTIC, Dr. Paul Offit makes the case that we consume way more vitamins than we need. Beyond that, this overdosing of vitamins is dangerous.

Now the name Paul Offit may sound familiar to our skeptic readers, he has been a front man in the war against the Anti-Vax movement.

A vast majority of the article focuses on the origin of what we now call ‘mega-dosing’ vitamins. Which he lays at the feet of one person Linus Carl Pauling.

I should stop and point out that Pauling was in his lifetime a great man, humanitarian and scientist. He won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering an entirely NEW chemical bond, from work he published in the 1920s. Having revolutionized physical chemistry, he then was part of a team that discovered the structure of proteins in the 1930s. In the 40s, he helped prove that ‘abnormally’ folded proteins caused Sickle Cell Anemia. He won the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for his work “against nuclear weapons testing”.

Pauling is the only person to win two solo Nobel Prizes…one in Chemistry and one in Peace.

All these earlier discoveries were accompanied by proper scientific investigation. For some unknown reason, at the age of 65, that changed. Now, armchair psychologists (such as me) feel that Pauling may have a…well, developed an inflated ego, that he could do no wrong. That, in almost every endeavour, he used “unconventional” or radical thinking to find new discoveries missed by others. One might excuse what I am about to say, that he had personal precedent on his mind when promoting ideas that were not supported by the ‘establishment’

Pauling got some anecdotal evidence that large doses of Vitamin C could increase his life expectancy by 25 plus years. Pauling tried it and felt better…again anecdotal.

It also ran contrary to studies done in the 40s that showed no benefit. It is unclear why Pauling seemed to, in his waning years; abandon the scientific method…the very thing that created his career. When people said his ideas were nuts, the method proved them wrong. But by the late 60s till his death, it was not the method but his own personal belief that made things true.

Of course when Pauling started praising Vitamin C, more people did research…proper controlled studies…and again, no effect was found. We should remember, Pauling was worshiped as a genius, if he said something was good, people…scientists WANTED to believe. However, the scientific method has no room for the cult of personality.

That have been over a dozen large scale controlled experiments showing no link.

Pauling then doubled down…He claimed it also cured cancer.

This was based on a small study in Scotland, but when unbiased scientists looked at the study, they noted that the people given Vitamin C were in better health to begin with…oops. One of the foundations of a valid double blind scientific study…that can PROVE things…is that the ‘subject groups’ are equal. One could say that smart phones promote good health because people who use one have less medical issues…this of course ignores the fact that the majority of young HEALTHY people have smart phones while the ill and infirm elderly are not ‘early adopters’ of new tech.

Again, based on the ‘now’ reputation of Pauling (which is rapidly declining thanks to these quack med claims), scientists tested the effectiveness of Vitamin C on cancer and again, no connection was found.

Pauling in classic quack science mode, when he could not get peer reviewed science journals to talk about this miracle cure, wrote a book titled ‘Vitamin C and the Common Cold’ and went on the talking circuit directing people to take 3000 mg of the vitamin…50 times the recommended dose. I say TALKING circuit because the ‘lecture’ circuit already knew his ideas were bunk, however the popular press is always open to a charismatic talking head.

Again in classic Woo medicine mode, he could not accept that the science contradicted his beliefs and lashed out calling the studies against were shots at him personally…that they were cases of “fraud and deliberate misrepresentation.” He even tried to sue the scientists.

And the descent continued. Pauling started to claim that Vitamin C plus Vitamin A, E and Beta Carotene, selenium…that this cocktail, or what we now call a multivitamin….could cure almost everything[1].

By the time of Pauling’s death in the mid-1990s, vitamin supplements were a big business. One plant alone in Texas was churning out 350 tonnes a year of Beta Carotene alone.

In 1992, Time published as its cover story “The Real Power of Vitamins: New research shows they may help fight cancer, heart disease, and the ravages of aging” which parroted Pauling’s unfounded and disproven claims.

Big Supplement though loved it, National Nutritional Foods Association or NNFA, distributed a copy to every member of Congress. They described it as “a watershed event for the industry.” They had a major publication uncritically stating that MEGA doses of vitamins will, again, cure anything without any valid (i.e. scientifically verified) evidence…anecdotal from top to bottom.

It is ironic, that in 1994 a law was passed that loosened regulation of vitamins because they were not, according to law, seen as a medicine. Deregulation, of course, was great for Big Supplement and the industry skyrocketed. If the medial value of vitamins were…well, valid, then the industry should be pushing for medical validation. By having them ‘deregulated’ and putting them in the same class as pork…well, the flim-flam of the industry, its claims and its proponent seems obvious.

IF it’s medically good for you, you WANT it to be classified as a MEDICINE, if it is quackery, then you would like it classified as a ‘spice’.

Of course, one might say, what’s the harm…

  • Well, high doses of Beta Carotene and Vitamin E, causes cancer…it will increase the numbers of cancer cases in smokers.
  • Similarly, Vitamin A is linked to some forms of lung cancer.
  • A study of the Pauling cocktail in 2004 showed that in gastrointestinal cancers, mortality was UP if you took Pauling’s advice.
  • 2005, Journal of the American Medical Association pointed out that patients taking mega-doses of Vitamin E were at higher risk of Heart Failure.
  • 2007, men who took multivitamins were twice as likely to develop prostate cancer.
  • 2008, a study involving over 200,000 people found vitamin supplements increased the risk of cancer and heart disease.
  • 2011 saw two studies published. One showed that in older women, multivitamin (these included mineral supplements as well) died at rates higher than those who didn’t.
  • The second study, showed a 17% increase in the chance of prostate cancer IF you took vitamin E.
  • In 2010, the vitamin industry grossed $28 billion.

From “Dummies” website:

Vitamin

Overdose and Possible Effect

Vitamin A 15,000 to 25,000 IU retinol a day for adults (2,000 IU or more for children) may lead to liver damage, headache, vomiting, abnormal vision, constipation, hair loss, loss of appetite, low-grade fever, bone pain, sleep disorders, and dry skin and mucousmembranes. A pregnant woman who takes more than 10,000 IU a day doubles her risk of giving birth to a child with birth defects.
Vitamin D 2,000 IU a day can cause irreversible damage to kidneys and heart. Smaller doses may cause muscle weakness, headache, nausea, vomiting, high blood pressure, retarded physical growth, and mental retardation in children, and fetal abnormalities.
Vitamin E Large amounts (more than 400 to 800 IU a day) may cause upset stomach or dizziness.
Vitamin C 1,000 mg or higher may cause upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation.
Niacin Doses higher than the RDA raise the production of liver enzymes and blood levels of sugar and uric acid, leading to liver damage and an increased risk of diabetes and gout.
Vitamin B6 Continued use of 50 mg or more a day may damage nerves in arms, legs, hands, and feet. Some experts say the damage is likely to be temporary; others say that it may be permanent.
Choline Very high doses (14 to 37 times the adequate amount) have been linked to vomiting, salivation, sweating, low blood pressure, and — ugh! — fishy body odor.

So, in conclusion…to paraphrase Mackenzie-King, “Vitamins if necessary but not necessarily vitamins”…translation, eat a well-balanced, shyte, in Canada, even half-assed balanced meals and leave the supplements to those FEW who truly need them.


[1] heart disease, mental illness, AIDS, pneumonia, hepatitis, polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, chickenpox, meningitis, shingles, fever blisters, cold sores, canker sores, warts, aging, allergies, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, retinal detachment, strokes, ulcers, shock, typhoid fever, tetanus, dysentery, whooping cough, leprosy, hay fever, burns, fractures, wounds, heat prostration, altitude sickness, radiation poisoning, glaucoma, kidney failure, influenza, bladder ailments, stress, rabies, and snakebites

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